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Joshua Sharf

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November 3, 2008


And now for something completely different, and completely a-political. This exchange, from an NPR podcast called, "Radio Lab," which examines big-picture questions of philosophy and science. It features Jad Abumrad, and long-time science and economics correspondent Robert Krulwich, and they're talking about how organization emerges in an ant colony, when there's no leader, and all the ands are really, really stupid. Krulwich is talking with ant expert Deborah Gordon.

Gordon: The instructions aren't anywhere. The instructions come out of the way that the colony lives and behaves.

Krulwich: That's hard.

Gordon: It is hard. If you had one ant on its own, you couldn't take it apart and find the substance that would make it behave in a certain way.

Krulwich: But you see how hard that is! I want to know where, where, where do we find that rule? It's not in any individual ant, you see it when all the ants get together, but where is it?

Gordon: Well, where is the thought in your brain? Is it in the neuron? Does each neuron have a little piece of the thought? If you took your neuron out and lay it on the table, could you see the little tiny bit of the thought that's in that neuron? No. It's not in the neuron. It's in the way the neurons interact with each other.

Abumrad: Think about a Seurat painting, the one where they're all on the banks of the Seine River? If you look at it up close, all you see is dots. You pull back, and the picture emerges, with all the ladies and their parasols. But the question with these systems is, the big question, is whether there is a Seurat to make the dots, to paint the picture, or whether the picture just materializes on its own.

Krulwich; Well, you know that I have an opinion about this, and that it's not a "science-y" opinion. I think it's not just fascinating that there are these hidden patterns and hidden rules. I think it's kind of holy, and there's no scientific evidence because there's no science behind this. I think that when you look at the way ants work, or the way a Seurat painting emerges before your eyes, you're looking at an author.

Abumrad: See, when you say that, all the air just gets let out of the balloon for me. It's like, the magic is gone.

Krulwich: Really?

Abumrad: Yeah, I think so.

Krulwich: See what you're left with then: everything you see when you wake up in the morning, as beautiful as it is, and we all agree that it is beautiful, is empty of purpose. Is that ok with you?

Abumrad: Yeah. In a way, it makes is even more mysterious to be alive.

That, right there, I think, is the difference between the scientific mindset of Krulwich, and that of materialism, scientism, exemplified by Abumrad, which sees God not merely as superluous, but as an aesthetic blight.


Power, Faith, and Fantasy

Six Days of War

An Army of Davids

Learning to Read Midrash

Size Matters

Deals From Hell

A War Like No Other


A Civil War

Supreme Command

The (Mis)Behavior of Markets

The Wisdom of Crowds

Inventing Money

When Genius Failed

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Back in Action : An American Soldier's Story of Courage, Faith and Fortitude

How Would You Move Mt. Fuji?

Good to Great

Built to Last

Financial Fine Print

The Day the Universe Changed


The Multiple Identities of the Middle-East

The Case for Democracy

A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

The Italians

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory

Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures

Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud